The Observer had an interview with Robert Silvers, the veteran editor of the New York Review of Books (he was present at the 1963 dinner party where it was conceived, and has been its editor ever since).
I have seen it suggested over the last few days that the results of the European elections in Scotland demonstrate that the division between Scottish and English politics is less stark than commonly thought, and that this has undermined the case for independence. I don’t think this is true. In fact, I think it can only be argued by someone who hasn’t really paid attention to the details of the result.
The fact David Coburn can now add the letters ‘MEP’ after his name means that Scotland can no longer be described as a UKIP-free zone, as it formerly could. It means that Scotland is less emphatically anti-UKIP than it used to be – but only in the same way that the existence of a single Scottish Conservative MP means that Scotland is less emphatically anti-Tory now than it was from 1997 to 2001. No-one could plausibly argue that the existence of a solitary Conservative MP means Scotland is as pro-Tory as England, and equally no-one can plausibly argue that one UKIP MEP means Scotland is as pro-UKIP as its southern neighbour. This is easily demonstrated by looking at the figures.
Eighteen months ago I pretended, preposterously, to be some kind of all-seeing political oracle –
Eighteen months ago I idiotically created a whole series of hostages to fortune –
Eighteen months ago I used this blog to make a number of political predictions. The first of those predictions related to the European elections just gone.
To be honest, I probably could have pretended I had never done anything so foolish – ignored the whole thing, maybe even quietly “disappeared” the original post – since I would estimate the number of people besides me who remember what I blogged here that long ago to be approximately zero. But I ended that post by saying that I would report back on how my predictions panned out, and – in my blogging life, as in my real life – I try to be a man of my word. So this is what, back in November 2012, I had to say about the European elections of May 2014:
A Eurovision post, a whole week late? That’s s-l-o-w blogging, even for you, Aethel.
I know, I know. It’s a function of the way I like to experience the contest – which is to watch the grand final first, then the semis (because I find the main event less fun if I know the songs in advance, but I also like to know the songs that didn’t make it through), and to do it all in a slow, gentle way. So I didn’t actually watch the second semi until Thursday just gone. Add a day or so for me to channel my thought drizzle into a small, muddy puddle and – hey, presto! – out comes this post.
(Oh, and for the record, I use the terms ‘we’ and ‘us’ liberally throughout this post to refer to those of us who live in what’s currently the United Kingdom. I do appreciate that ‘we’ is pretty strained in this year of the Independence referendum. Personally, as someone who supports YES, I’m looking forward to the day when the independent countries of Scotland and (what remains of) the UK can combine with Ireland to form our very own bloc in Eurovision voting. Hopefully that day will come in 2016 and then, think about it, between us we’ll be able to ensure our respective countries get at least 22 votes every year…)
I can’t claim to be a Eurovision superfan, unfortunately. I wish that I was. The guiding principle of the contest – in place of war, nation shall make (perhaps just ever so slightly naff) music unto nation – seems thoroughly lovely to me.* And almost all the Eurovision people I have met have been very much my kind of people: open-hearted and determined to celebrate the thing they love, utterly unconcerned with the comings and goings of fashion (but with, in most cases, a delightful tendency not to take the whole thing too seriously). Sadly, there is some deficiency in me that means I just don’t quite get it, whatever it is, and I can only watch Eurovision as a sympathetic, well-disposed outsider. I like it, I pay attention to it, I enjoy it – but I don’t love it, in the way real aficionados do.
It follows that you shouldn’t, when you’re reading this, expect anything of genuine value or insight. I don’t really know what I’m talking about (no change there, then…), and these are just my personal opinions. I certainly intend no insult or disrespect to proper Eurovision fans, or to any of the acts who have represented us down the years, who have all, I’m sure, done their level best. That said, one of the things that I see and hear written and said most often about Eurovision, usually as part of an inquest into a(nother) lacklustre position on the leader board, seems utterly wrong-headed to me: the oft-repeated question “What do ‘we’ have to do to have some success at Eurovision?”
I still think that to conceive of there being any such thing as a single English grammar (and therefore any such thing as universal principles of “correct” and “incorrect” usage) is both ignorant and foolish. I remain convinced that the primary purpose of the award – and prescriptive grammar in general – is to facilitate the identification of an “in group” who use language “the right way”, and thus to facilitate the corresponding disparagement of people who use it in a different way. I continue in the view that the only rational basis on which to criticise a particular use of language is that it makes it more difficult to determine meaning, not just that it fails to adhere to an arbitrary set of “rules”. Finally, I remain firmly persuaded that ultra-formal, grammatically “correct” English is often decidedly unpleasant to read – itself a very significant failing, given that the whole purpose of language is to facilitate the transmission of information. This last is a point I made at length last year, in a show-and-tell kind of way, by producing a grammatically “correct” post that had all the energy, grace and vigour of a dead – but perfectly formed – warthog.
This time round, then, I’m going to dispense with the wider discussion, and concentrate on the supposed “failings” of the award nominees. I haven’t been able to find an actual shortlist, so I’m relying on the summary posted at The Guardian. The article there is credited to ‘Guardian staff’ but since, in my online searchings, I have found the exact same article repeated word for word on other news sites my guess is that ‘Guardian staff’ is a euphemism for agency reporter.
Let’s start with Tristram Hunt, who we are told is nominated for ‘tautology and other errors’. (Tristram Hunt, by the way, is Labour’s education spokesman, and therefore the bête noire of Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Last year’s award was won by a group of academics who had written an open letter criticising … Michael Gove. You might detect a theme here.) Only one example of Hunt’s supposed tautology is provided: ‘ongoing continuing professional development’. Unfortunately, this isn’t a tautology.
I happened to walk along a street I don’t often walk along the other evening, and I saw a van parked at the side of the road. It had one of those all-over paint jobs which left it completely emblazoned with company contact details, in a way that made it obvious that the owners had put careful thought into it functioning as a sort of mobile billboard. I’m not going to give the name of the company concerned, mainly because I can’t remember it. What I do recall is the slogan that was featured under the name of the company, and indicated that the firm concerned supplied “office solutions”. So here’s my question: what does the phrase “office solutions” actually mean?
I know what it ought to mean, if normal rules of language applied. Solution has two meanings: it can either be the means of solving a problem, or it can be a liquid mixture in which one substance is dissolved in another. But the first of those meanings only makes sense if it relates to a problem – by definition, you can only have a solution to something that needs solving. So an equation can have a solution (in this problem-solving sense), or a sudoku puzzle, or that thing where the printer flashes all its LEDs simultaneously and goes beep. But, equally, something that doesn’t need solving can’t have a solution. So you can’t have a dog solution (again, in the problem-solving sense), or a turnip solution, or an Italianate marquetry solution.
Now, the obvious upshot of this is that, when you do see the word solution used in connection with something that isn’t a problem, it can only refer to the other kind of solution – a liquid mixture. So, if you were to see a “turnip solution” mentioned somewhere, it could only be a solution of dissolved turnip (mmmn, tasty), or a solution that was designed to be used by or on turnips. And, since it’s obvious that an office is not a problem that requires solving, “office solutions” can only be liquid mixtures containing dissolved offices, or alternatively liquid mixtures that are designed to be used in offices. The first of those is patently ridiculous, which means it must be the second. So “office solutions” ought to mean liquid mixtures that are consumed in offices.
I’m being excessively literal and pedantic, of course. In reality, any reasonable person encountering the phrase “office solutions” would construe it to mean “solutions to office-related problems”. So here’s my next, slightly more serious question: which office-related problems, precisely?